Well, just a week to go Christmas itself and so time to get into the party mood as well as some reflection on the time that’s in it. The festive atmosphere has certainly picked up around town as people get into the swing of things and the tills at last ring out with a mixture of relief and festive cheer. John Roberts Square is at the heart of it, pulsating with life and bonhomie, carols and carousels. So let’s have a look at some of the Christmas stories and traditions behind it all.
Every year more than 400 million people celebrate Christmas around the world — that makes Christmas one of the world’s biggest religious and commercial festivities. In approximately year 300 A.D., the birthday of Jesus was determined to be on December 25, the day that has been celebrated from then till this very day. The celebration on the 25th of December starts with Christmas Eve, the evening of December 24. The religious festival is originally a blend of pagan customs. The Romans held a festival on December 25 called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, i.e. “the birthday of the unconquered sun.” Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in late December to early January. However, it is uncertain exactly why December 25 became associated with the birth of Jesus since the Old Testament doesn’t mention a specific date of the event.
Naming the Day
The name came from the Old English ‘Cristes Mæsse’ ~ meaning the ‘mass of Christ’ ~ the story of Christmas begins with the birth of a babe in Bethlehem.
It is believed that Christ was born on the 25th, although the exact month is unknown. December was likely chosen so the Catholic Church could compete with rival pagan rituals held at that time of year and because of its closeness with the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere, a traditional time of celebration among many ancient cultures. The account in St Luke’s gospel best sets out the story of the Nativity.
Santa comes to town
Now, let’s have a look at the origin of that ‘Big Red Chubby Fellah’. The origin of Santa Claus begins in the 4th century with Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, an area in present day Turkey. By all accounts St. Nicholas was a generous man, particularly devoted to children. After his death around 340 A.D. he was buried in Myra, but in 1087 Italian sailors purportedly stole his remains and removed them to Bari, Italy, greatly increasing St. Nicholas’ popularity throughout Europe.
His kindness and reputation for generosity gave rise to claims he that he could perform miracles and devotion to him increased. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of Russia, where he was known by his red cape, flowing white beard, and bishop’s mitre.
In Greece, he is the patron saint of sailors, in France he was the patron of lawyers, and in Belgium the patron of children and travellers. Thousands of churches across Europe were dedicated to him and some time around the 12th century an official church holiday was created in his honour. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated December 6 and the day was marked by gift-giving and charity.
After the Reformation, European followers of St. Nicholas dwindled, but the legend was kept alive in Holland where the Dutch spelling of his name Sint Nikolaas was eventually transformed to Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace, and Sinterklaas would reward good children by placing treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought brought this tradition with them to America in the 17th century and here the Anglican name of Santa Claus emerged.
In 1822 Clement C. Moore composed the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, published as The Night Before Christmas as a gift for his children. In it, he portrays Santa Claus:
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
Other countries feature different gift-bearers for the Christmas or Advent season: La Befana in Italy ~ The Three Kings in Spain, Puerto Rico, and Mexico ~ Christkindl or the Christ Child in Switzerland and Austria ~ Father Christmas in England ~ and Pere Noël, Father Christmas or the Christ Child in France. Still, the figure of Santa Claus as a jolly, benevolent, plump man in a red suit described in Moore’s poem remains with us today and is recognized by children and adults alike around the world- not a Coca Cola concoction, after all!
The X Factor
Contrary to a silly notion held by some using the term Xmas is not a clumsy attempt to ditch the word Christ from the traditional name. Our letter X approximates to Greek letter resembling the X but is actually a hard CH sound and thus is a Greek abbreviation for ‘Christ’ much used in church carvings. The annual quiz next week, another Xmas tradition!
Luke, Chapter Two
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” And as they say, the rest is History!